It’s Thanksgiving weekend, we’re getting ready for the holidays, and I find myself, again, in the place where I have to let one of my beloved pets go. My hospice foster Buddy has declined significantly in the past couple weeks. I know he’s not suffering, but I know he’s not happy either. He’s a shadow of the dog I love and getting worse each day.I work at the Cumberland County SPCA in New Jersey, an organization that has a senior program called Scarlet’s Senior Society, which is supported by a Grey Muzzle Organization grant, and I’m proud to be a foster and adopter of senior dogs. Buddy, a gorgeous Yellow Labrador, came home with me as a regular foster while we worked through the severe skin infection he had when he arrived as a stray. He turned into a Hospice Foster when we learned that he had a debilitating condition that would eventually leave him paralyzed. He was successfully treated with chiropractic care, however, which extended his life by years.
Buddy has been the most loyal and loving pet I have ever had. He has been with us through many other foster dogs who have come and gone, and he was waiting for me when I brought home our baby and welcomed her into the house without a blink. We’re one month short of being together for three years - so much longer than I had expected us to have together.
I spent last night with him and reflected upon our time together. I thought about what I would do differently and what I think we got just right. As I prepare to let Buddy go and the holiday season begins, I think the best thing I can share is the gifts that we should always be sure to be giving our senior pets.
The gift of rescue. Hundreds of elderly dogs await a family in shelter cages and even more with foster families in rescues. These dogs have varied histories; some have never known love and some are experiencing life without a family for the first time. Whatever their life was like, all senior dogs deserve a family to love them at the end. Rescuing a pet is perhaps the greatest gift you can give them; not by simply saving their life, but by enhancing it so greatly with all the joys that go along with being a family pet.
The gift of time. Most of us are so busy that the days come and go without having much time to just sit back and relax. But it’s so important for us to take at least a few minutes each day and give our dogs a few moments of our undivided attention. With a senior dog, it doesn’t take much. Choosing to sit on the floor instead of the couch when they can’t get up with you anymore. Brushing them, even when it’s not needed. Taking a walk around the yard, instead of around the block. They need to know at the end of the day that they are loved and valued.The gift of comfort. For Buddy, this was a down comforter placed on the floor during the winter. I hated it; I try so hard to keep my house neat and have invested in dog beds that match the furniture, but he loved a stinky old comforter that collected dirt, was hard to wash, and ended up all over the floor. When it was really cold we even put a heating bad under it for extra warmth.
The gift of play. Pets don’t take life nearly as seriously as we do and find opportunities to play everywhere! A game of tug in the yard, practicing some commands, or playing with a toy inside are activities that make their days fun. Even as he got older and older, nothing made Buddy happier than retrieving some type of special present for us.
The gift of goodbye. When life isn’t fun anymore, we have the ability to let our pets go in peace. As I’m reminded this very moment, it’s rarely an easy decision. It’s tempting to hold onto him so we can get through the holidays or to his three-year anniversary. But I have to remind myself that this is not about what I want, this is about what is best for him. And letting him go, before he either suffers an injury or or falls apart, is the best thing I can do for him. It sure doesn’t feel like I’m doing him any favors at the current moment, but from my years of work with sick and old dogs, I know that it is the most thoughtful gift we can give our old or suffering pets. We will rethink this decision over again and again, we will make lists and reconsider, we will ask others for their opinions, but when the decisions is made, it is almost a pact between you and your dog, a promise fulfilled.
And what do we humans get in return for giving our pets these gifts? We get the kind of gifts that don’t have a price tag and can’t be bought in the store. We get a companion delighted to see us, every time we walk in the door, regardless of what we look like or what we accomplished that day. We get a comforting presence sleeping next to us each night. We get the gift of friendship, guardianship, companionship. And eventually we may be left with the gifts of our memories together. Perhaps they are memories of a life saved or healed. Memories of holidays and changing seasons and memories of loss and life together. Memories of loving eyes, a ready paw, a wagging tail. Memories of a life well-loved and well-lived. And perhaps, in time, with these memories in mind, you will again be ready to give the amazing gift of rescue once again.
You can read Maria's reflections on another of her foster dogs, Finn, in an earlier post.
The Grey Muzzle Organization improves the lives of at-risk senior dogs by providing funding and resources to animal shelters, rescue organizations, sanctuaries, and other nonprofit groups nationwide.